Newark Police violated Roberto Lima's First Amendment rights
|Roberto Lima & Baher Azmy|
NEWARK — The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling today holding that Newark journalist Roberto Lima is entitled to the entire amount of a monetary offer made by the City of Newark in a case stemming from his wrongful arrest in 2007, and that his attorneys are also entitled to now seek fees in addition to those monetary damages.
"The actions taken by Newark Police that day were a clear violation of Mr. Lima's First Amendment rights as a journalist," said Seton Hall Law School professor Baher Azmy, who served as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. "Police cannot arrest innocent journalists to suppress stories that they may not like or may embarrass them."
Lima, the editor of the Brazilian Voice newspaper, was held by police in September 2007 after a photographer discovered and photographed a decomposed body covered by debris in the Ironbound section of Newark. The photographer notified Lima about the discovery, and Lima thereafter notified the police. After arriving at the scene, officers intimidated Lima, seized his camera and ordered him to turn over all copies of the photographs including originals. The officers at the scene were led by Samuel DeMaio, who was a deputy chief at the time. DeMaio currently serves as acting director of the Newark Police Department.
DeMaio ordered Lima not to publish the photos and told officers to physically seize his camera. While at the scene, DeMaio also demanded that the photographer disclose his immigration status, a demand for which DeMaio was later reprimanded by the state Attorney General's office which has banned any law enforcement official from inquiring about the immigration status of a crime witness or victim.
After Lima voluntarily gave a statement at the police station, he was handcuffed to a bench until he agreed to turn over all originals and copies of the photographs.
Lima expressed relief at the court's ruling. "I hope that the Newark Police has learned its lesson and trained its officers so that no journalist or citizen is ever bullied, intimidated or harassed the way I was," Lima said. "This case was about standing up for my constitutional rights as well as the rights of others - especially journalists."
Before filing suit in January 2008, Lima and his attorneys from the ACLU-NJ and the Seton Hall Center for Social Justice attempted to settle the matter, but the city refused.
In November 2009, the City of Newark made a formal "Offer of Judgment" to pay Lima $55,000 for the plaintiff's claims for relief against the city. But when Lima's attorneys filed an application for attorney's fees, the city balked and said the $55,000 offer included attorney's fees. The Court of Appeals today determined that Lima was entitled to the entire $55,000 as damages, and said a separate petition for attorney's fees can be filed.
"We wish it did not have to come to this," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "If the city had acknowledged its officers' unconstitutional conduct and taken expedient steps to retrain officers, we never would have had to go to court. Now we can only hope that the city takes steps to ensure this never happens again."
Lima's case was also one of hundreds of allegations in the ACLU-NJ's 2010 petition to the Department of Justice asking it to investigate the Newark Police for civil rights violations.